Giovanni’s Alphabet

I learned the alphabet last night. I had learned the song years ago, taught to me by Big Bird or one of Jim Henson’s other carpet covered puppets. I have sung it over and over again while searching encyclopedias, dictionaries and telephone books. I never understood it, not like I do now. It is like a poem. It is like a prayer.

Over the Memorial Day weekend I took a job as a waiter at an Italian restaurant offering outdoor seating during the summer months. Each day before dinner service begins we move marble tables with iron bases from one side of a garden alley to the other, creating tables of two or four or six, or however many guests will be stopping by for a meal before or after attending the theater.

While the other waiters and I carry the tables, the busboys bring out the table dressings – the silver, the glasses, the table cloths. We work in these small teams to complete our task of dressing up a public walkway for an evening out. There are elements that make dining on the patio inviting. Surrounding the tables are terra cotta colored planters filled with green hedges and peppering the floor of our makeshift dining room are decorative umbrellas lit from beneath by lamps enclosed in heavy pedestals. The lamps and the planters are also moved into position each night for dinner service, but this work isn’t done by the busboys or the waiters. This work belongs to Giovanni.

Giovanni is a mule of a man. I have never seen him other than at the restaurant bridled by his dishwasher’s uniform and yoked by the white apron hanging from his neck. He is never rushing, never resting, always slow, constant and strong–pushing planters, washing windows, carrying crates of china and silver up and down stairs, his shoulders his only cart. Our only communication was to nod, smile and say each other’s name. “Giovanni!” I would say when I saw him each day. “Pablo!” he would say back. Even in this, my simple name spoken in Spanish, the impediments of Giovanni’s speech were apparent–his language as slow, laborious and well meaning as the rest of his life.

This was enough, this greeting. This was the limit of what we held in common–a common place and the knowledge of each other’s names.

A restaurant atmosphere simmers in it’s linguistic ingredients. Through the traditions of courtesy, hospitality, vineculture and various culinary disciplines, Italian and French can be found in some form in a great deal of restaurants. Add to this New York English, if the restaurant be so geographically placed, and Spanish, the language of labor in late twentieth century New York, the language of the low men on the immigration totem pole. This particular restaurant spoke French and Italian at the management level, English at the waiter level, and Spanish everywhere else.

Among my English speaking colleagues, different dialects emerged. Some spoke in Basketball, some spoke in movies, and some spoke in musical theater. “You wouldn’t believe it,” one waiter said to me. “At my audition the other day I was aiming for this note I had rehearsed, and I wound up hitting a note a third higher.” I had no idea what he was talking about, but he was smiling, so I said, “Great!” and smiled back at him, the same way I smile at Giovanni.

I saw Giovanni passing the back coffee station. On his shoulder he carried a bucket filled with dirty glasses. Freeing one hand, he held out a fist in my direction. “Pab!” he said. I didn’t know what to make of the fist. It was held out as a greeting, so I shuffled through the things I was carrying–waiter things, a wine list, menus, a tray–I put them all into one hand and made a fist myself. “Giovanni!” I said. But it wasn’t enough. You can only smile and say, “Giovanni!” to someone so many times. Sooner or later something must be added, or it is like saying nothing at all.

How do two friendly fists greet each other? I tried just standing there with my fist out, as if I was giving him an approving thumbs up without the thumb. We both stood there confused until another thought entered my mind–I could count his potato. It was a counting game I remembered from when I was little–One-Potato-Two-Potato, a variation on the theme of Eanie-MeanieMinie-Moe. We counted each persons fists as potatoes to decide who was it for games of hide-and-goseek, freeze tag and red-light-green-light-one-twothree. I lifted my fist and bounced it gently on top of Giovanni’s. The confusion on his face told me that he had not intended to have his potato counted. I knew if I couldn’t figure this out, freeze tag was out of the question.

It occurred to me that there is no dogmatic separation between me and the people I work with. There is no caste system being watched or followed. There is only language.

In basketball and musical theater there are those who are gifted with talents and abilities beyond others. The most clumsy athlete though, can practice his dribble and his foul shot. The hoarsest voice can practice scales until one day it can hit the note a third higher than the one it rehearsed. Language too is a learnable skill. I would make greater use of my summer by learning one of the languages being spoken around me.

I walked into the restaurant yesterday afternoon. Giovanni was spraying the stainless steel door frames with some type of polish and rubbing them off with a rag. I held out my fist. Giovanni put down the rag and aerosol can and made a fist himself. With it, he punched my fist directly–finger for finger, knuckle for knuckle–toasting each other with beer mugs that were inconveniently elsewhere.

“I want to show you something,” I said. I reached into my nap sack and pulled out a book I had bought on learning the Spanish language. “I’m going to learn Spanish,” I said. “Maybe you can help me.”

“Oh,” he held the book in his hands. “Oh! Si, yes. Oh, is good.”

I dressed in my waiter’s uniform and ate a big bowl of pasta. I walked out into the building’s atrium, moved the tables and chairs, waved the table cloths, laid the silverware and placed and polished the glasses. Giovanni moved the planters and the umbrella lamps. After service started, he walked up the kitchen stairs and on to the patio to pick up the bus buckets filled with dirty plates and used glasses. “Is important,” he said. “Is important, unerstang? Important?” I nodded. “Is important, in espanish, unerstang? You learn alphabet.”

“The alphabet?” I said. “Yeah, well, you know, I have the book. I’ll make sure I learn the alphabet.”

“Is important, unerstang?” he said, shouldering a crate of dishes and heading back to the kitchen.

“Yes. I understand.” I said.

The next time Giovanni surfaced, for air or glasses or whatever, I was busy pouring wine at a table. I was able to catch a short word from him as he went back toward the kitchen door. “Alphabet, on my watch–I will show you.”

After the last espresso had been drunk and cleared from the table, I went down to the locker room to change back into the clothes that would make me more of a regular person, and less of a servant. I stepped out of my black shoes and pulled off my socks. I untied my double Windsor, and unbuttoned my shirt.

Giovanni walked into the locker room, “Can I have you panz?”

I have made convenient friendships. For no other reason than to find the same person at my bus stop or subway station in the morning, I have talked about the weather, or befriended classmates in high school or college with casual conversations about books we were reading or some other common experience. I have run into acquaintances at later dates in a different atmosphere, finding the subject of the conversation had changed from the weather to something distasteful, like racial bigotry or some other form of aggression.

It is at moments like these I wonder if there might be something in the small talk I make, something in the way I talk about the weather, that makes people believe that I secretly share their unusual dispositions.

It was with this type of feeling–the feeling that I had nurtured some mistaken foundation of a relationship, that I reacted to Giovanni. “Giovanni?” I held my black work pants in front of me. “Why would you want my pants?”

“No, no. . .” he gasped under a fit of laughter. “No. . .Panz.” He made a gesture with his hand in the air–the same gesture my customers make when asking for their check at the end of dinner.

“You want a pen?” I sighed with relief. “Sure, you can have a pen. I’ve got lots of pens,” I said, tossing him a pen and my waiter’s pad.

Giovanni flipped through the orders for ravioli and risotto I had recorded for my tables that night. “Is important?” he asked before tearing off each page. “OK. . .” he said. “OK,” as he fumbled with his watch.

“Ah,” he said, and struggled with the pen between his fingers to trace a shape he had learned as a child. He played with the buttons on his watch. “Be,” he said and slowly scratched at the pad. He looked back at his watch and whispered, “ah, be, oh, ce . . .Ce!” he scratched the pad.

Giovanni wore a black digital watch with a velcro strap wrist band. It was the type of watch that could be used to store names and phone numbers. A name could be added by pressing a button to shuttle through the alphabet, pressing another button to move to the next space, and a third button to finally add the name into memory. Giovanni didn’t realize this. He found the watch useful, not because it could hold names and phone numbers. He found the watch useful because it held the alphabet–a group of characters he could not remember otherwise.

“De. . .” Another waiter entered the locker room and began to change back into his street clothes. He had just graduated from the Yale School of Drama and had come to New York in search of commercial acting work.

“Efe. . .” Realizing that Giovanni was doing something with the alphabet, the waiter began to rattle it off in Spanish.

Giovanni was only slightly distracted. “Ha. . .unerstang? Pab? Unerstang? Ha?”

“Yes,” I said, “I understand. . .de, efe, ha, I understand.” But I knew I didn’t. The moment struck me so profoundly, that I knew I could only hope to scratch at the door of understanding.

I stood next to a schooled actor, a man studied in communication, a man trained to use his voice and body to convey thoughts and feelings, ideas and moods. He thought he was clever by showing us that he knew what we were talking about. He knew the lines, but he missed the entire scene. The alphabet can be said quickly and can be used to organize a shopping list or and address book. The alphabet can be said slowly and can be used to give a friend the sounds he will need to speak his mind and heart in a given language.

All of the things we talk about being part of modern communication–cellular phones, fax machines, television and the internet are hardly communication at all. It is all much more like a trained actor reciting the alphabet too quickly for it to mean anything.

We are told that through the internet, we are linked to the world. Despite the number of countries I can reach through this digital exchange, I am still going to reach people very much like myself–educated people with enough money to have computers, and enough free time to play with them. In many ways, this is like talking to myself.

Giovanni didn’t realize that I knew the alphabet. Aside from a few changes in pronunciation and an added accenting character over the n, my alphabet was the same. He didn’t understand that writing the alphabet down for me would not help me learn the Spanish pronunciation. At a glance, the first letter would always be A to me and never Ah. I’m glad he took the time to write it all down for me though.

The alphabet, and language enable us to take what is offered. They give us a way to say yes to new communication technologies. They enable us to read from the long menu of satellite television systems, phone based communications, and interactive computer applications.

Would you allow me, as your waiter, to make a suggestion? The chef has many treats he has prepared for years. He no longer bothers to print them on the menu. Language gives us the power to ask about these things. You can still order your entree off the menu, but please try a half order of the chef’s specialty as an appetizer. After work, while you sit on the subway thinking about returning an e-mail to your friend in Houston, find a pair of eyes as tired as your own and start with, “Hello.” It doesn’t matter if the word is understood or not, what you are saying is, “We have nothing in common, but the world.”

Paul Hawkins – July 1996


Filed under Personal Essays

2 responses to “Giovanni’s Alphabet

  1. Jonathan

    I’d almost forgotten about this one. It’s very moving when you think about it… – thank you!

  2. Ann

    Paul, you are remarkable. That is a great little story with a very insightful point. Keep it up!

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